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Jacksonville, Fla., Sees Spot for AVs in Monorail Overhaul

The Ultimate Urban Circulator Program is being planned as an autonomous vehicle overhaul of the city’s 1980s-era Skyway monorail. Transportation officials have put out the call for qualifications to advance the project.

The Skyway people mover in Jacksonville, Fla.
Flickr/tom spinker (cc)
A 1980s-era elevated monorail in Florida’s largest city is being reimagined as a starting point for a new autonomous transit system.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is moving forward with a "request for qualifications" (RFQ) to evaluate contractors, or a collection of contractors, to design, build, operate and maintain an autonomous transit system that will revive the 2.5-mile Skyway in downtown Jacksonville.

The project, known as the Ultimate Urban Circulator Program (U2C), will introduce autonomous vehicle technology and other transportation innovation into the downtown area, building on the footprint already occupied by the Skyway.

“The thought that will go into this project has the opportunity to be leveraged around the country, in terms of the deployment of autonomous vehicles, in our communities around the United States,” said Nathaniel P. Ford, CEO of the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, in his comments during a meeting last Thursday to discuss the qualifications process.

The JTA is searching for a “turnkey solution” where an operator will be able to develop a Level 4 autonomous system, officials said.

“In 2015, the JTA launched a Skyway Advisory Committee to review the system and to see how to either improve it, demolish it or maintain it as is,” said David Cawton II, communications director for the authority, explaining how the concept for the Ultimate Urban Circulator was conceived.

Crawton went on to explain that the project will be a multi-phase plan to convert the existing tracks to accommodate autonomous vehicles and expand the network through ground-level connections and on-street routes to create a 10-mile network in and around downtown Jacksonville.

What exactly that system might look like is still to be determined. 

“The Ultimate Urban Circulator project is vehicle agnostic at this point,” Cawton said.

The first phase of the project is to be developed in the “Bay Street Innovation Corridor,” a primary east-west thoroughfare in downtown, connecting historic districts and other areas with potential for redevelopment.

The JTA has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ) to include AV testing and curriculum development in advanced automotive technologies, which will include connected vehicles, big-data collection, big-data analysis and real-time data feedback.

“Partnering up with JTA certainly gave us an opportunity to really take it to the next level and get involved with autonomous technologies," said Doug Brauer, dean of Engineering, Technology and Industry at FSCJ.

The autonomous shuttle project being pursued by JTA will serve as an ideal research area for the university’s advanced transportation technology education. 

“It ends up being a natural marriage,” he remarked. “We’re going to be creating a more advanced workforce that’s exactly what they need to step in and support autonomous vehicles.”

This undertaking touches on a number of transportation trends that cities across the nation are exploring ranging from how to effectively deploy and use autonomous vehicle technology — namely in the form of small, electric shuttles — to reimagining legacy transportation systems and networks.

In a number of cities like Los Angeles and others, bus-rapid-transit lanes have been carved out of downtown streets and expressways, allowing transit vehicles to zoom past crawling traffic in dedicated lanes. In other cities like Kansas City, Mo., streetcar systems — perhaps the most ubiquitous form of public transit in the first half of the 20th century — have been revived to great fanfare, often serving as the launch point for downtown revitalization efforts.

And so, the Urban Circulator is set to serve as a restart for the Skyway monorail “people mover,” a product of 1970-era transportation dreams to address parking shortages, traffic congestion and environmental concerns.

“We’re looking forward to partnering with a very progressive, thinking-outside-of-the-box-type organization to really bring something home that is going to be a legacy project for Jacksonville, for Florida and for the United States,” Ford said. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.